A searing, devastating, all-inclusive peak behind the curtain of closeted Hollywood matinee idol Rock Hudson, Tribeca doc Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed tells a timely story while exploring every angle of the actor’s hidden lifestyle. I have never seen a single Rock Hudson film, yet I felt compelled to review this documentary based on its LGBT+ content. The first time I heard his name was associated with James Dean, then again in Ryan Murphy’s Netflix masterpiece, Hollywood. While Hollywood explored a mostly fictionalized version of Hudson’s door into the industry, the real story is that much more enthralling because of it. Director Stephen Kijak (Shoplifters of the World, Backstreet Boys: Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of) explores all facets of Hudson’s persona, and goes under the surface to reveal personal stories that have never before seen the light of day. Vibrantly brought to life through clips from throughout Hudson’s storied career by editor Claire Didier, Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed broke my heart into a million pieces.
Context makes all the difference, especially in a documentary that explores the classic Hollywood era. Coming fresh out of World War II, the imagery of the big All-American man began to emphasize physique and masculinity. Constant shirtlessness was becoming the new norm. For predatory agent Henry Willson, this image was one to be established in whatever way he could spread it. He would disgustingly get young actors to perform sexual acts on him for representation—once a young Illinois boy with no acting training crosses his path, Willson snatches him under his wing in much the same manner. Everything we learn about Willson seems vile and terrible; as played by Jim Parsons in Hollywood, Willson is given a glimmer of humanity, yet his methods of grooming and likely rape are absolutely revolting as portrayed here. In the words of Hudson himself (recounted during an 80s interview looking back on his career that is sampled many times), young Roy Fitzgerald was simply a “midwestern hick” who tried out the Navy, then moved to L.A. to live with his father and pursue acting. It was Willson who would discover him and develop his stage name—apt indeed, considering “Rock Hudson” himself is often referred to as having an impenetrable granite façade.
As he was being considered for roles, Hudson took up horseback riding and diction lessons, striving to be the best version of his new persona without years of professional training to back him up. Willson did not allow so much as a trace of effeminacy, teaching his twinky clients how to pass as heterosexual and become veritable sex symbols. If Willson could be credited for the discovery, then it was producer Ross Hunter who helped Hudson get his first big break as a movie star. Hunter longed to bring back glamour and love stories to the big screen, and would go on to work with Hudson many times. Hudson slid into the glossy romance of 1954’s Magnificent Obsession with ease, becoming an overnight sensation. This identity would become one Hudson could revisit over and over again—a clean-cut man that people all over the world could fantasize about. Roy Fitzgerald had officially become Rock Hudson. The use of clips show the range Oscar-nominated Hudson was capable of, and resulted in me adding many of his movies to my watchlist.
From here, Kijak samples interviews with various costars of Hudson’s, including Piper Laurie, Kathleen Hughes, Howard McGillin, and many others. While vintage red carpet, awards, and interview footage couple with these interviews to show us what type of person Hudson was professionally, it is the personal recollections of past lovers, dear friends, and private diaries that prove most revelatory. Some assume that Hudson reveled in being closeted, while others are more contradictory and seem to indicate Hudson would have preferred to be out. Many threads indicate that Rock “had a sizeable dick,” was a very sweet, social person, and was private yet fiercely loyal to those closest to him. Despite it eventually being public knowledge on nearly every movie set, no tabloids caught him publicly engaging in “homosexual relations,” nor did Hudson confirm his sexual preferences while he was alive. Hearing a former fling talking about not being able to hold his hand one last time brought tears to my eyes.
A significant amount of homophobia from Hollywood is evident during this entire documentary. Back in those days, one was simply not allowed to be out of the closet as an actor, lest their career was completely over. How appalling that the FBI was keeping a close watch on him just for being potentially homosexual or bisexual. Even hearing Hudson recall an early interest in acting as “sissy stuff” feels tragically misguided and almost self-hating. It is a shame we never got to have an era of Rock Hudson in which he was able to be his true self after the public knew about his sexuality. A dual life is no way to live. Being forced to marry a woman just to appease a curious fanbase is preposterous, but Hudson’s sham of a marriage to his agent’s secretary would prove to be just that.
Using the acting of Hudson to help deliver emotionally devastating truths is an absolute stroke of brilliance. Images of Hudson are plastered over every frame, further serving to embody the spirit and charisma of the late actor. When the film begins delving into the AIDS crisis, it bores into the root of gay trauma for so many. The Reagan-era refusal to even acknowledge the virus until much too late makes me angry no matter how many times I hear it discussed. While Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed would have been a beautiful portrait of a gone-to-soon talent of immeasurable magnitude, the emphasis on Hudson’s contribution to fighting AIDS at large to change the public’s perception adds another layer of tragic beauty to his story. At one point, he was the biggest actor in the world to share his AIDS diagnosis, helping to break the stigma associated with it, and shift the viewpoints of people all over the world. One can only hope that we continue to learn from a period in Hollywood where so many terrible things were swept under the rug with little care for human decency. Rock Hudson’s imprint on the landscape of cinema at large cannot be overstated, while his work to raise awareness and funds for AIDS may prove his largest legacy.
Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed screened at 2023’s Tribeca Film Festival.